Black God, White Devil (Rocha, 1964)

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Glauber Rocha’s Aesthetics of Hunger – a 1965 essay which attempts to explicate the Cinema Novo – reads like a convoluted mass of allegations, opacities and rhetoric (none of which are necessarily without substance). Somewhere within these imbroglios however, one stumbles upon an assertion that’s especially jarring:

We, makers of those ugly and sad films, those shouted and desperate films where reason does not always speak in the loudest voice, we know that hunger will not be cured by the cabinet’s formulations and that Technicolor patches do not hide, but only worsen, hunger’s tumours. Thus, only a culture of hunger, drenched in its own structures, can take a qualitative leap. And the noblest cultural manifestation of hunger is violence.

Black God, White Devil (Rocha’s directorial effort from the preceding year) is borne of hunger: a hunger to represent the marginalised, a hunger to empower the disenfranchised, and a hunger for a new, incendiary film language to articulate such grievances. Accordingly, the film seethes with violence; a ravenous cine-beast whose furious kineticism lashes wildly against an entire panorama of antiquated institutions and ruthless oppressors. From Church to state, wealthy landowners to penniless bandits, no one is spared the full brunt of the director’s polemical tirades and, as we soon discover, no one deserves to be. Predicated by an infectious belief in the transformative potential of the cinema (where governments fail, it will succeed), Rocha’s unwavering commitment to the plight of the impoverished reveals itself to be as estimable as it is necessary.

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In response to those pestiferous “Technicolor patches” that he so decries, the director crafts a realist phantasm that rips itself asunder with a series of stubbornly-defined oppositions. The crisp, high-contrast monochromes of his visuals act as deliberate extensions of his textual antinomies: spiritualism vs. secularism; decadence vs. poverty; order vs. chaos. Simplistic they may well be, but they allow Rocha to craft an eviscerating, multi-pronged attack upon man’s ineptitude in dealing with destitution that’s designed to mould the viewer’s innate passivity into revolutionary activity. The subsequent profile of humanity which emerges is disheartening to say the least: all escape routes available to the fugitive farmers at his narrative’s heart will lead only to exploitation – both within accepted civilisation as well as outside of it.

As his title’s English translation suggests however, Rocha brazenly resists the most basic opposition of them all. The eternal conflict between good and evil is rendered a far-flung myth in his portrait of moral disarray – a world in which everyone, regardless of class distinctions, succumbs to primitivism. Whilst one would expect the quasi-Marxist Rocha to cast a critical gaze upon members of the bourgeoisie and the clergy, he remains equally unsparing when examining his more economically-beleaguered characters. No one escapes untainted from the pessimism that envelops this canvas, though the director is astute enough to ask all the pertinent questions: his peasantry is hapless (why?), naïve (why??) and uneducated (why???). Without the basic tools necessary to capacitate themselves, how can one expect them to negotiate – let alone challenge – the repressive structures of a disordered and rampageous society? Hunger thus devolves into greed – as poisonous a desire as ever there was – and it’s this that triggers the undoing of nearly all of the text’s misguided individuals. In Rocha’s hands, the concept of famine fleetly expands beyond the scarcity of food and burgeons into a pathological dearth of feeling.

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Though devised as a cinematic manifesto, Black God ends up sourcing its potency from much more than its director’s ardent ideological convictions. The pain of historical memory weighs down upon the film, with frequent references to the massacres, messiahs and marauders of the past submerging the viewer in the distinct local history of the Brazilian sertão. Rocha thus draws an established link between the extreme paucity of this vast, barren landscape and the frantic fanaticism that such despair engenders (culminating as it does with the reign of the cangaço). The subsequent  breakdown in law and order serves only to further enervate the underclasses, the group that remains most susceptible to changes initiated elsewhere within (or outside) the social hierarchy. The director observes all this with palpable anger, layering despondence upon futility as he weaves a canvas that’s informed by a single guiding principle: to avoid the mistakes of yesteryear.

Nevertheless, when all is said and done, Rocha’s pièce de résistance – the stimulus which allows his film to generate so electrifying an impact – is neither his socio-political agenda nor his historical knowledge, but his ferocious grasp of style. Orchestrated gunshots litter his soundtrack alongside traditional folk music (the latter conceived as oral storytelling to supplement his narrative), causing his action to unfold as something of a brutal filmic ballad. A spectacular array of compositions and setpieces then expose the raw power of the cinematic image: from the close-ups of rotting carcasses that open the film, to the dumbfounding scene in which a Christian cross is painted onto a human head using a murdered newborn’s still-warm blood, Black God reads like a photo album of poverty devolving into its most harrowing extremes. Meanwhile, Rocha deftly appropriates the language of the American western – the stark, desolate vistas of the sertão that so dominate his imagery surely functioning as a wry subversion of Monument Valley’s near-fetishisation; the ugly, debilitated stepbrother to the grand old Fordian myth. The director’s decision to shroud his characters in all this de-glorified emptiness is integrated into an overarching scheme that’s designed to replicate guerilla warfare within the cinema: the elongated lulls and silences of his wastelands are shattered by the thundering velocity of Eisensteinian montages that startle with their bloody severity. And therein lies the secret of Rocha’s mutinous art, for the relationship between awareness (as through his landscapes) and action (as compelled by his editing) is key to his solution. As Black God lapses into mayhem for one last time during its chaotic finale, there’s little doubt that the director understands the Sisyphean odyssey that his pitiful individuals have to confront on all-too regular a basis. But with a camera in the hand and an idea in the head, he evidently hopes to do so much more than simply shine a light upon their suffering – Rocha wishes to trigger an uprising within the cinema itself. For him, and perhaps even for us, the revolution will begin here.

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  1. #1 by danyulengelke on March 4, 2012 - 18:55

    Just saw this last month. Loved it!

    Reminds me of the work of Pasolini-who Rocha even quotes in The Age of Earth trailer.

    I really admire Rocha(and Pasolini)’s ability to reveal. I can only think of it as “organic” filmmaking. This would of course make sense with both directors vehemently supporting the voice of the impoverished. A trait demonstrated with even more lucidity in their documentary work.

    Great review-

  2. #2 by Vesta Remak on January 9, 2011 - 06:41

    Thanks for the article, I even learned something from it. Incredibly quality content on this blog. Always looking forward to new entry.

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